May 9, 2016

Shared Risk is Required for Success

Written by Dr. Kuryan Thomas

Building a new software product is a risky venture – some might even say adventure. The product ideas may not succeed in the marketplace. The technologies chosen may get in the way of success. There’s often a lot of money at stake, and corporate and personal reputations may be on the line.

I occasionally see a particular kind of team dysfunction on software development teams: the unwillingness to share risk among all the different parts of the team.

The business or product team may sit down at the beginning of a project, and with minimal input from any technical team members, draw up an exhaustive set of requirements. Binders are filled with requirements. At some point, the technical team receives all the binders, along with a mandate: Come up with an estimate. Eventually, when the estimate looks good, the business team says something along the lines of: OK, you have the requirements, build the system and don’t bother us until it’s done.

(OK, I’m exaggerating a bit for effect – no team is that dysfunctional. Right? I hope not.)

What’s wrong with this scenario? The business team expects the technical team to accept a disproportionate share of the product risk. The requirements supposedly define a successful product as envisioned by the business team. The business team assumes their job is done, and leaves implementation to the technical team. That’s unrealistic: the technical team may run into problems. Requirements may conflict. Some requirements may be much harder to achieve than originally estimated. The technical team can’t accept all the risk that the requirements will make it into code.

But the dysfunction often runs the other way too. The technical team wants “sign off” on requirements. Requirements must be fully defined, and shouldn’t change very much or “product delivery is at risk”. This is the opposite problem: now the technical team wants the business team to accept all the risk that the requirements are perfect and won’t change. That’s also unrealistic. Market dynamics may change. Budgets may change. Product development may need to start before all requirements are fully developed. The business team can’t accept all the risk that their upfront vision is perfect.

One of the reasons Agile methodologies have been successful is that they distribute risk through the team, and provide a structured framework for doing so. A smoothly functioning product development team shares risk: the business team accepts that technical circumstances may need adjustment of some requirements, and the technical team accepts that requirements may need to change and adapt to the business environment. Don’t fall into the trap of dividing the team into factions and thinking that your faction is carrying all the weight. That thinking leads to confrontation and dysfunction.

As leaders in Agile software development, we at CC Pace often encourage our clients to accept this risk sharing approach on product teams. But what about us as a company? If you founded a startup and you’ve raised some money through venture capital – very often putting your control of your company on the line for the money – what risk do we take if you hire us to build your product? Isn’t it glib of us to talk about risk sharing when it’s your company, your money, and your reputation at stake and not ours?

We’ve been giving a lot of thought to this. In the very near future, we’ll launch an exciting new offering that takes these risk sharing ideas and applies them to our client relationships as a software development consultancy. We will have more to say soon, so keep tuning in.

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